Editor's note: We originally reviewed Divinity: Original Sin II in September 2017, when it received a 10/10. This review has been amended to reflect our experience with the Definitive Edition on PS4, which is (unsurprisingly) also a 10. You can find our impressions of the new content, console controls, and more at the bottom of the existing review. -- 9/5/18
About midway through Divinity: Original Sin II's campaign when it was first released on PC, I was called on to visit the family farm of a heroic colleague named Gareth. On arrival, I found him mourning his murdered parents and calling on me to help him take revenge. Pretty standard RPG stuff.
But when I went to the farmhouse in search of the killers, I was greeted by paladins who prevented me from going inside. I tried to change their minds during dialogue with the in-game persuasion skill. No dice. I was facing a brick wall with this quest. The only choice I had was to kill the paladins. So that's exactly what I did. But after I stepped over their bodies to proceed into the farmhouse, I discovered that the murderers inside were possessed innocents. No way of releasing them from this magical mental bondage presented itself. The most expeditious way of moving forward with the quest was to kill them. I did that…and then discovered a love letter from a possessed woman to one of the paladins that had stopped me at the door.
Hello, guilt. It took me a long time to get over how bad I felt about killing these people. Part of me wanted to load a save and replay it all. But my victims were already dead. Going back and trying to change what I'd done wouldn't wash the blood from my hands. I eventually moved forward and went on to kill a lot more people in even more heartbreaking ways. Still, I never forgot this scene at the farmhouse, because that was an "innocence lost" moment that opened my eyes to how affective and surprising Divinity II: Original Sin can be.
I don't know if I've ever felt so emotionally wrapped up in a game and its characters, and pulling at your heartstrings is not all that the game does well. Larian Studios has crafted one of the finest role-playing epics of all time, both in its original form on PC and in its Definitive Edition released for PC, PS4, and Xbox One (for specific comments on this version of the game, see the bottom of this review). Meaningful choices, evocative writing, and superb acting in the fully voiced script make for a wholly believable world. The detailed and free-flowing combat engine provides challenging and rewarding turn-based tactical battles that add tension to every action. Character depth includes seemingly endless options for creation, customization, and growth, making every member of your party more of a real individual than the usual collection of buffs and numbers found in most RPGs.
As with its predecessor from 2014, Divinity: Original Sin II's setting remains the D&D-infused fantasy land of Rivellon, but the clock has been moved forward centuries from the original game so you don't need any familiarity with the backstory to quickly get up to speed with what's going on. You take on the role of a Sourceror, a name referring to those that draw arcane power from a mystic material called Source. This substance is controversial in Rivellon, because using it seems to inadvertently summon interdimensional monsters known as Voidwoken. Deploy Source powers and these bizarre creatures show up to kill everyone in sight. Because of this, you're viewed as a danger to society by the Magisters, a governing body of inquisitors and warriors who claim to serve the Divine Order and protect society by rounding up and "curing" Sourcerors.
The story begins with you and the other members of your four-person party (that's the maximum--you can play with any number of companions or even go solo) being sent off to the island prison of Fort Joy with Source-blocking collars around your necks. You soon realize that you have a greater destiny to fulfill, however. Much of this is tied to your past role in a war serving Lucian, sort of a god-king whose legacy has been taken up by Alexander, his son who now leads the Magisters. Eventually, you and the other members of your party discover that you are Godwoken, demigods who have a chance to ascend and basically replace the seven gods under threat by creatures from the Void.
This epic saga is a big undertaking. Expect to use up the better part of 60 to 70 hours to complete the main quest line and a good portion of the many side quests. The story isn't just extensive, though; it's detailed and gripping, largely due to how it avoids good-versus-evil fantasy archetypes common to RPGs. Moral ambiguity is with you every step of the way as you progress from a prison boat to Fort Joy, to the sandy beaches and forests of Reaper's Coast, to the tropical Nameless Isle, and finally the besieged city of Arx.
But while you start off with persecuted Sourcerors on one side and oppressive Magisters on the other, events soon carry you into a world of unrelenting grey where most people are trying to do the right thing, yet failing miserably. Some Sourcerors are criminals. Some Magisters are conflicted about what they are doing and want to change the system. Voidwoken may have good reasons behind their actions in Rivellon. Gods have enough hidden agendas that mortals may be better off without them. Even the paladin faction that shows up in the game as heroes turns into blinkered zealots, overseeing the siege of a city, leaving bodies overflowing atop buckling wooden carts in their wake.
Basically, nobody can be trusted or measured at face value; not even your comrades, as only one of you can ascend to godhood. You're left wide open when it comes to determining a course of action, with very few moments forcing you down a particular path. Play good, play evil, play something in between. This approach is incredibly freeing. It lets you guide your character and party according to your own moral compass, or lack of one. I don't believe I've felt this attuned to a role-playing experience since I played pen-and-paper D&D many years ago.
The story isn't just extensive, though; it's detailed and gripping, largely due to how it avoids good-versus-evil fantasy archetypes common to RPGs.
Freedom with character design and development really boosts this feeling. Character depth is tremendous, and with every hero in the game comes with a wide range of core attributes plus civil abilities, combat abilities, skills, talents, Source abilities, and more. Five racial choices blend the expected--humans and dwarves--with the offbeat--elves who consume body parts and self-conscious undead who hide their faces to avoid scaring NPCs.
You can roll your own protagonist or choose from one of six predefined characters representing each race. Each one comes with a specialized storyline that immerses you deeper into the saga. Even then, you're allowed a free hand to customize everything. You're even able to tell those joining your party what sort of adventurer you'd like them to be. Next to standard classes such as Fighters and Clerics are more innovative options such as Metamorphs and Shadowblades, and a slew of talents that dictate even more nuanced capabilities. So if you want to take on, say, the arrogant lizard Red Prince or the sinister elf Sebille, you're not locked into a set class as you would be in most RPGs.
At a glance, combat is not much different from many computer RPGs. Battles are turn-based, with an allotment of action points governing your decisions. But Divinity: Original Sin II differs from its peers by consistently taking terrain and environmental elements into consideration. Pools of water can be frozen into slippery sheets of ice. High ground gives boosts to damage and low ground restricts it. And enemies turn these battlefield features into advantages, too. Hang out too close to a pool of oil and you can guarantee that an opponent will set it on fire. Evil archers and spellcasters always run or teleport to high locations so that they can snipe from relative safety.
As a result, battles are damn tough. You may have to play and lose some battles at least once in order to assess how the enemy can strike and determine a way to counter their advances. Thankfully, there are a number of difficulty options that let you control the pace of victory. The Explorer option nerfs enemies and boosts heroes to emphasize story over combat difficulty, so you get the flavor of the game without the serious challenge. Classic is the standard mode of play--tough but not insanely challenging. Tactician ups everything a little more, and Honor is the ultimate challenge, where you have just one save slot that gets deleted if everyone is killed. There is something here for just about every level of commitment and ability.
Where most RPGs let you push on and experience almost everything in a single playthrough, it is impossible to experience all that this one has to offer in one play, or maybe even two or three.
I freewheeled in Classic mode as I went, directing characters into roles and training them based on what worked best in battle. Character progression felt as if I was moulding real warriors through an adventure, pitfalls and all. I truly empathized with my party, to the point that I couldn't let any of them go later on to try one of the other heroes on offer, like the witty and talented undead Fane. There's one reason for a replay, but it's not the only one.
Quest design in Divinity: Original Sin II is closer to a pen-and-paper feel than any computer RPG that I've ever played. The biggest reason for this is that you can screw up. An NPC can be randomly killed, shutting down a quest before it starts. Sometimes you simply cannot succeed at a skill check necessary to move a particular adventure along in the way you desire. Failing persuasion checks, as noted above in that farmhouse story, is fairly routine, forcing you to figure out another way forward and damn the consequences. Where most RPGs let you push on and experience almost everything in a single playthrough, it is impossible to experience all that this one has to offer in one play, or maybe even two or three.
Quests are not perfect, though. The journal system of tracking them isn't nearly robust enough to keep up with how many you have going at any given time. You can't search it, and even worse, key elements are frequently not included in the text descriptions. As a result of this quest confusion, I got lost more often than I should have. I spent too much time not sure what I was supposed to be doing due to vague journal entries, or wandering around searching for a key location that for reasons unknown was not noted on the map. I know some will believe this to be a good thing, that we finally have a serious RPG that doesn't hold the hands of its players. But this issue seems more like a disconnect between how quests are offered up during the game and how they are tracked in the journal than any commitment to old-school difficulty.
In addition to the expansive single-player campaign, you can also play with friends cooperatively or dive into an even truer pen-and-paper role-playing simulation with Game Master mode--a section of the game that can live on potentially longer than Divinity's own campaign. This is the kind of game that you're best off playing online with friends; the involved story and the necessity to use teamwork in combat make the game too challenging if you're adventuring with uncooperative strangers.
All of the above has been enhanced with the release of the Definitive Edition of Divinity: Original Sin II.
All of the above has been enhanced with the release of the Definitive Edition of Divinity: Original Sin II, which also sees the game making its console debut on PS4 and Xbox One. Larian Studios was kind to PC owners as well, offering a free upgrade that lets you launch either the original or new versions (old saves are not compatible with the new game). This revamp makes it worthwhile to play one of the greatest RPGs of the past few years all over again. Comprehensive work has refined the plot, quest journal, interface, balance, difficulty, and more. New content has been added, like new encounters in Arx, an expanded tutorial, more informative tool tips, new battles, and a Story mode (which lowers difficulty) for those who want more adventuring and less reloading.
The console version of the Definitive Edition is an almost entirely seamless port of the original PC game. I have to admit that I had my doubts playing the game on PS4 due to concerns about navigating such a complex RPG without the benefit of mouse and keyboard. But Larian has done a superb job of moving the control system to a gamepad. Everything can be accessed readily, mostly using the left stick and the shoulder buttons to open a radial menu where you access character stats, equipment, inventory, skills, and so forth. While this control system lacks the immediacy offered by a cursor and keyboard hotkeys, it is remarkably smooth and soon becomes intuitive.
My only lingering gripe would be with using the control bars for abilities, gear, and spells during combat. You need to flip past a lot of icons over five pages to access all of the skills that your characters need to utilize in order to survive the game's demanding tactical combat. At the same time, the game's mechanics are simply too big to convert from the standard mouse-and-keyboard combo to a gamepad with just a handful of buttons and not encounter some awkwardness.
Other altered elements cut down the amount of busy work required when adventuring through this vast game. The user interface has been enlarged for TV screens, making everything clearer and more distinct. Inventories now encompass the entire party on a single screen, making it easy to check out all of your gear and handle common tasks like learning new skills from books. Items can be transferred between party members with a couple of button presses. Holding down the X button on the PS4 allows you to search large sections of the landscape on a single screen for goodies to loot.
The journal has been comprehensively rewritten with the goal of making the storyline and quests clearer. According to Larian, more than 150,000 words of text have been rewritten or added. Instructions still leave something to be desired, though. In the main quest log now, directions have been condensed to brief sentences that are more to-the-point than in the original version of the game. While it's a more direct approach, the short descriptions rarely tell anything aside from the bare bones about going to certain places, helping NPCs, delivering items, and so forth. It comes at the expense of some of the game's flavor without making quests all that much easier to follow than they were before, in that they lack a lot of specifics. As a result, I still found myself bewildered every now and then with regard to where to go and what to do.
The closing chapter in Arx has been reworked in a similar fashion to increase clarity. Where the original game sort of just threw your heroes into this devastated city with no stated goals other than to find chief villain Dallis, several plot threads have now been expanded, like the one with the dwarves and Deathfog, with new NPCs, extensive dialogue, and new battles adding to the apocalyptic mood. There is definitely more going on in the city, and I felt connected to a bigger picture. There is also a steadier narrative drive to the conclusion. Still, the Arx changes don't make a tremendous difference, as most of the city and its quests are nearly identical to what they were in the original game. And Arx still seems out of place coming after the penultimate Nameless Isle chapter. That puzzle-heavy section of the game continues to feel more like the proper setting for the finale, due to its singular focus on the protagonist's ascension to the ranks of the gods.
A lot of other little changes make appreciable differences. Persuasion appears to be easier, which let me open up quests that walled me off with failure before. This time around I could succeed in swaying NPCs to my point of view much of the time, and I felt that I was able to experience more of the game as a result. Story mode adds resurrection as a skill, includes the ability to readily flee combat, and dramatically reduces battle difficulty. The latter made it easier to tolerate lengthier encounters that I didn't want to slog through again. At the same time, Story Mode doesn't turn the game into a total cakewalk. Gruelling scraps can still be a challenge. But if you do find it too easy, you can shift back to tougher difficulty settings on the fly.
Divinity II: Original Sin will always have a strong degree of complexity, regardless of design changes. The Definitive Edition remains a complicated affair where your path has been left almost entirely wide open. Definitive or not, console or PC, this is a game that remains true to its inscrutable CRPG roots. Once again, though, even while I have to gripe about being left in the dark at times, the freeform design makes it all worthwhile. I'll accept some confusion and uncertainty if the trade-off is a wonderfully realized and almost boundless fantasy world.
From lonely farmhouses through pitched battles with gods in far-flung dimensions, Divinity: Original Sin II is one of the most captivating role-playing games ever made in both its original and Definitive incarnations, with the latter proving that even the most complicated role-players can be ported successfully to gamepad-limited consoles. This immaculately conceived and emotion-wrought fantasy world, topped by brilliant tactical combat, make it one of the finest games of recent years, and it remains an instant classic in the pantheon of RPG greats.
Disclosure: Former GameSpot reviews editor Kevin VanOrd currently works at Larian Studios, serving as a writer on Divinity: Original Sin II.